What Is On-line Analytical Processing?

An approach to analysis and reporting that enables a user to easily and selectively extract and view data from different points of view based on a multidimensional data structure called a "cube." For example, using an OLAP tool, a user can request that data be analyzed to display a spreadsheet showing a company's beach ball products sold in Florida in the month of July, compare revenue figures with those for the same products in September, and then see a comparison of other product sales in Florida in the same time period. OLAP delivers information to users in a bandwidth-friendly manner by providing summary information first, then drilling down to more detail only as users require.

OLAP (on-line analytical processing) cubes are essentially proprietary multidimensional databases that pre-calculate results at multiple levels, providing very rapid results to users of the OLAP client software as they 'slice' and 'drill' through the data, assimilating patterns & trends and looking for the information they require. Although cubes can be built directly from operational data in simple cases, it is more common for them to be built from a data mart. The 'cube' (containing the required data) and the user's web-based or OLAP client software are independent products, and may be provided by different vendors.